Of the distinction between craft and art, the poet James Merrill once said, ‘If this line does exist, the poet himself shouldn’t draw it; he should focus only on making the poem happen.’*
The Bauhaus school embraced this amalgamation of the creative role of the artist and the skilled production of the craftsman. Its founder, Walter Gropius, proclaimed: <<Die Schule soll allmälich in der Werkstatt aufgehen. Kunstler und Handwerker gemeinsam in Lehre und Produktion.>> (‘The school will gradually turn into a workshop. Artist and craftsman together in apprenticeship and production.’)
From this philosophy—and the Bauhaus can most accurately be considered a philosophy above a cohesive style, as Sandusky** commented in 1938—emerged a typography that, like its architectural and metalwork siblings, pursued originality through function. Function was considered the Zeitgeist, the ‘spirit of the age;’ a no-nonsense ideal sharply diverging from the frivolity of the worship of beauty that had consumed past generations.
Function in typography, for the Bauhaus, addressed the crucial concern of the day: communication. While text always communicated, proponents of the Bauhaus complained of a veritable inundation of books, pamphlets, posters and ads, a visual menagerie of words vying for one’s attention. Modern life simply called for so much reading that the least we could do was make it easier on ourselves. Looking back from our modern perch, we could make the same demand twenty times over as we cringe over poorly typeset workplace documents or black-on-yellow job advertisements.
Herbert Bayer*** called for ‘an alphabet that corresponds to the demands of an age of science.’ A science of communication was thus proposed: amidst the relentless babble of printed word, the Bauhaus preached clarity over beauty. Typography ought to grasp the guts of text and allow its meaning to pour logically across the page, rather than impose conventions on it or conceal it under ornamentation. Laszlo Moholy-Nagy called this ‘the inner law of expression and the optical effect.’
In 1923 various Bauhaus teachers and sympathisers (Jan Tschichold, despite his notoriety, fell into the latter camp) penned manifestos on Die Neue Typographie (The New Typography), at the same time as the school revised its workshop-based ideal. The craftsman was losing ground to the machine, which could outperform him in both precision and efficiency. Richard Sennett provides an apt summary of the rise of the machine in The Craftsman, and questions why ‘skilled operatives live with and through machines but rarely create them in modern industry,’ thus securing their own demise. The Bauhaus seems to have grasped the true threat of the machine, but, rather than shying from it and wishing it away, sought to harness the power of it and embrace all that the modern age brought. In 1923, with a bold new program, the Bauhaus school forged on with its new motto: ‘Art and technology—a new unity.’ This new emphasis on industry acknowledged that mass-production was to be accepted as part of the modern world, and that the craftsman must design his works accordingly.
Tschichold**** wrote of technology as ‘only a kind of second nature,’ not to be feared but, just like the primary nature, to guide the artist and craftsman: ‘Both nature and technology teach us that “form” is not independent, but grows out of function (purpose), out of the materials we use (organic or technical) and how they are used.’
Applied to typography, which was driven by always advancing technical materials, this meant a number of things. The spirit of the age being the advancement of function, and the function of typography being communication, clarity emerged as the driving force of Bauhaus typography. All elements derived from this root: contrast, which was to be marked but logical; organic form, rather than predetermined conventional form; logical arrangements; asymmetry, which emerged from the rhythm of the text and did not shy from white space; lack of ornament—including contrast between thick and thin stroke—thus shedding ‘an attitude of childish naïveté.’
Tschichold’s list goes on, and we may see in it a precursor to more recent ideas that have permeated information graphics, such as those pushed by Stephen Few in Information Dashboard Design. Few’s central claim is that a designer communicates subtly by enhancing data, but ought only use this power in meaningful ways. Multi-coloured bar graphs draw attention to distinctions that do not exist, while the sparing use of colour, such as one red word among many black, can indicate a figure is amiss without needing to state this in words. Few, like Tschichold, calls for only meaningful use of colour and contrast, rather than misleading decorative uses which lead the viewer to construct meaning where there is none.
Proponents of the New Typography were somewhat stifled in their initial font choices, since printers only stocked certain type families—a small hiccup that the march of progress would correct. Nevertheless, the New Typography embraced Grotesk (sans serif) fonts as ‘the only one[s] in spiritual accordance with our time,’ conceding Paul Renner’s Futura a notable step towards the ideal. Tschichold firmly believed that the ideal font could not be generated by one person, but must be a collaborative effort, and would inevitably rely on an engineer—perhaps for structural integrity?
Paul Renner's 'Futura'
In 1925, Bayer found himself tasked with devising a typeface for all Bauhaus manifestos, commissioned by Gropius himself. Bayer’s response, Universal, was a simplified, non-case-specific, geometric typeface, all circles and arches, flowing like neon lettering waiting to be melded into one circuit. Joseph Albers devised Kombinationschrift (‘combination-lettering’) during his time at the Bauhaus, which relied on ten simple geometric shapes that he rearranged to construct each letter. The result is something like lettering one would expect to see stencilled on the side of an army tank. While clean and built of simple, almost mechanical elements, such lettering must surely tire one’s eyes as much as a dense slab of Textura—hardly living up to the Bauhaus’ original catch cry of clarity. Perhaps Technik and mass-production had truly taken over from function.
Herbert Bayer's 'Universal'
Despite the dogmatic list compiled by Tschichold (which he later tossed aside, fearing its religious and fascist overtones), the spirit of the Bauhaus’s New Typography narrows down to a simple concentration on essentials in communicating visually. The philosophy all the while acknowledges that this, too, is an historical aim: ‘All lettering…is first and foremost an expression of its own time, just as every man is a symbol of his time.’ Many typefaces have been lauded for their clarity, from sans serif to serif to blackletter—and each has probably proved of optimal readability to its own age. The Bauhaus did not claim that the New Typography was essentially superior to all other typography—simply that it responded in a very precise way to the challenges of its time.
This was particularly pertinent in a world beginning to truly globalise, wedged between two world wars that inextricably drew nations together. Not only was the world inundated with the written word (a mere glimpse of what was to come), but it was becoming more interconnected. Typefaces that emphasised a particular culture or were ‘custom built’ for any given language contradicted the dawning cosmopolitan age. Tschichold considered such national typefaces to undermine the function of text in this new, borderless setting.
While the New Typography was fresh, inclusive and customised according to the logic of a text, perhaps the Bauhaus overlooked some important functions of typography in seeking such unity across media and borders. While the New Typography would stand out amidst the old, a world full of rigidly-defined text would create some optimised faux-lifestyle that did not permit tact in funeral notices or merriment at holidays. Tschichold made the sweeping claim that ‘The best typefaces are those which can be used for all purposes, and the bad ones are those which can only be used for visiting-cards or hymn books.’ Perhaps what he really wanted to say was that aristocratic society and religion were dead, rather than that every text be rendered alike.
* Sennett, Richard. 2009. The Craftsman. Penguin: London.
** Sandusky, L.  2001. ‘The Bauhaus Tradition and the New Typography,’ in Texts on type: Critical writings on typography. Allworth.
*** Bayer, Herbert. 2001. ‘On Typography,’ in Texts on type: Critical writings on typography. Allworth.
**** Tschichold, Jan.  2001. ‘The Principles of the New Typography,’ in Texts on type: Critical writings on typography. Allworth.